Red Vs are after China’s queer community

WeChat's closure of student-run LGBTQ+ accounts has triggered nationalist frenzy and an antitrust report.

An illustration featuring the popular Chinese all-purpose app WeChat on a phone screen against the People's Republic of China flag

For queer activists — current and former students who have experienced waves of political tightening — the abrupt WeChat ban and its aftermath is unsurprising, but still disappointing.

Image: Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

When mobile social platform WeChat shut down nearly 20 accounts run by campus LGBTQ+ clubs and nonprofit organizations on July 6, the Chinese queer community home and abroad were sad and enraged — but mostly perplexed. No one knew what might have triggered the bans. It was only in the following week, when nationalist influencers, or Red Vs, launched a campaign targeting China's LGBTQ+ community for ties with "anti-China forces" that queer students realized that they have been pulled into a nationalist frenzy.

Most of the banned WeChat accounts had been run by students at elite Chinese universities, including Peking University in Beijing and Fudan University in Shanghai. WeChat didn't specify why it deleted the accounts other than to provide a brief notice stating the accounts "violated rules," a former staff member of an LGBTQ+ club, whom we will call Zhang, told Protocol. (Zhang's real name is being withheld for safety reasons.)

Zhang said that the students had sought explanations from the compliance department of Tencent, WeChat's parent company, but they didn't get much information other than it was "not a decision made by one person," Zhang said. Tencent didn't respond to Protocol's inquiry for comment.

It's unclear whether Tencent followed a government directive to wipe out campus LGBTQ+ accounts or whether it preemptively shuttered them. China's government is tightening ideological control on school campuses. "School used to be a safe haven to shield us from political complications," Zhang said. "But ideological control is getting tighter and tighter on university campuses."

With the world's largest population, China is also home to the world's largest LGBTQ+ population. China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and then removed it from an official list of mental illnesses for clinical treatment in 2001. In the past few decades, Chinese youth have shown increasing tolerance and support toward sexual minorities, but the community still faces overt discrimination at home, at work and in society at large.

LGBTQ+ student organizations in China have long found themselves in a precarious situation. Most are not formally registered with their universities. As a result, these campus clubs receive no institutional recognition and support. Sex education is absent in most Chinese schools and universities. In this environment, university LGBTQ+ WeChat accounts and their WeChat groups served as a critical online platform for isolated queer youth to explore their sexual identity, find a community and advocate for diversity and inclusion.

But the space for advocacy is fast eroding as the Chinese government tightens restrictions on civil society and steps up an ideological campaign in the education sector. To avoid being seen as confrontational, organized collectives influenced by Western ideology, some LGBTQ+ organizations have adopted a more moderate tone to appear to align with official values. For example, instead of championing human rights and equality, their narratives have shifted to promote "the harmony of family and society," according to one queer activist.

"The activity and advocacy of queer student groups is politically risky due to its potential tension with the Party-state ideologies and social control," Le Cui, a former university teacher in China and a doctoral candidate studying queer issues in education at the University of Auckland, told Protocol. "This move shows that the authorities have become increasingly intolerant of queer discussion and activism in universities."

On July 7, a lawyer reported Tencent to the State Administration of Market Regulation, China's antitrust watchdog, alleging that Tencent's shutdown of the LGBTQ+ accounts had violated the country's anti-monopoly law. The lawyer suggested the antitrust watchdog fine Tencent $7.4 billion, or 10% of Tencent's 2020 annual revenue, the maximum amount allowed under draft amendments to the country's anti-monopoly law, which are expected to pass later this year.

Queer activists often challenge the authorities through legal means, not because they expect to win, but as a mostly symbolic attempt to convey their displeasure to authorities. This is the first time an individual has challenged a tech giant using the same antitrust measures that Beijing is actively employing to crack down on the tech industry.

Ultra-nationalists' new target

Just as some in the student queer community started to bounce back from shock, rage and fear after the WeChat ban and discuss how to rebuild their communities, they found themselves in the crosshairs of Red Vs — ultra-nationalistic influencers (爱国营销号) on Weibo who have amassed large followings for instigating attacks against individuals and groups whose political stances don't align with their own.

Nationalistic outbursts have swept across China this year, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Grassroots nationalists on Weibo had launched hate campaigns against feminist activists and popular science bloggers in the previous two months, patching together what they see as evidence of the individuals' or groups' foreign associations. Their attacks have resulted in the shuttering of dozens of Weibo accounts held by feminist activists and pop-science bloggers.

The queer community is now weathering a similar purge campaign. Some online voices have accused the West of using LGBTQ+ ideas to undercut China's global rise. "External forces first show that they understand minorities, and then propagate how much minorities are respected in the West. After such brainwashing, minority groups will mostly lose their confidence in China's system and follow suit to become the West's vassals," one WeChat blogger wrote. "China's competitiveness lies in its demographic dividend, and through LGBT propaganda external forces are reducing China's fertility rate to weaken China's competitiveness."

On Weibo, the prominent nationalist influencer with the handle @ziwuxiashi (子午侠士) — roughly translated as "Knight of the South and the North" started firing unsubstantiated accusations at campus LGBTQ+ clubs just a few days after the WeChat ban, hinting that they'd received funding from foreign organizations. On July 9, @ziwuxiashi put out a call for tips on "collusion of LGBT organizations with foreign countries and their source of funds."

Some of the grassroots nationalists involved in the recent campaign appear to have connections with Chinese authorities. In late May, @ziwuxiashi shared with followers the news that "issues like feminism and LGBT have been given a high priority at the national level," and wrote that he had submitted "evidence" about feminist activists and LGBTQ+ groups he has collected to "relevant state authorities." Last year, the Shaanxi province Cyberspace Administration Office publicly pledged to work with the @ziwuxiashi in order to propagate the Party line. In a 2016 profile of him published by the Communist Youth League, the self-proclaimed former military member expressed the need to instill "a sense of urgency and mission around cyber ideological struggle" into China's youth.

For queer activists, the abrupt WeChat ban and its aftermath is unsurprising but disappointing. "In the past few years, public opinion has increasingly tied sexual minorities with 'color revolutions' imported from overseas," Zhang said. "Considering the changes that had been gradually taking place, what happened this time wasn't unexpected."

Queer activists in and outside of China are finding ways to rekindle and fuel their campaigns. Last weekend, they held offline events in at least two Chinese cities. And overseas, dozens of Chinese queer activists and supporters gathered in New York, London and Vancouver to commemorate the deleted LGBTQ+ WeChat accounts. They started a #404queerChina campaign, hanging rainbow flags in parks and exhibiting artwork to support China's queer movement.

Activists and researchers worry this current crackdown will have a chilling effect on China's queer activism. Some students read the recent moves as a sign of the Party-state trying to wipe out their identity and have decided to leave their organizations, but others are not giving up. "We can always start over," Zhang said.


How I decided to leave the US and pursue a tech career in Europe

Melissa Di Donato moved to Europe to broaden her technology experience with a different market perspective. She planned to stay two years. Seventeen years later, she remains in London as CEO of Suse.

“It was a hard go for me in the beginning. I was entering inside of a company that had been very traditional in a sense.”

Photo: Suse

Click banner image for more How I decided seriesA native New Yorker, Melissa Di Donato made a life-changing decision back in 2005 when she packed up for Europe to further her career in technology. Then with IBM, she made London her new home base.

Today, Di Donato is CEO of Germany’s Suse, now a 30-year-old, open-source enterprise software company that specializes in Linux operating systems, container management, storage, and edge computing. As the company’s first female leader, she has led Suse through the coronavirus pandemic, a 2021 IPO on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, and the acquisitions of Kubernetes management startup Rancher Labs and container security company NeuVector.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.

UiPath had a rocky few years. Rob Enslin wants to turn it around.

Protocol caught up with Enslin, named earlier this year as UiPath’s co-CEO, to discuss why he left Google Cloud, the untapped potential of robotic-process automation, and how he plans to lead alongside founder Daniel Dines.

Rob Enslin, UiPath's co-CEO, chats with Protocol about the company's future.

Photo: UiPath

UiPath has had a shaky history.

The company, which helps companies automate business processes, went public in 2021 at a valuation of more than $30 billion, but now the company’s market capitalization is only around $7 billion. To add insult to injury, UiPath laid off 5% of its staff in June and then lowered its full-year guidance for fiscal year 2023 just months later, tanking its stock by 15%.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at


Figma CPO: We can do more with Adobe

Yuhki Yamashita thinks Figma might tackle video or 3D objects someday.

Figman CPO Yuhki Yamashita told Protocol about Adobe's acquisition of the company.

Photo: Figma

Figma CPO Yuhki Yamashita’s first design gig was at The Harvard Crimson, waiting for writers to file their stories so he could lay them out in Adobe InDesign. Given his interest in computer science, pursuing UX design became the clear move. He worked on Outlook at Microsoft, YouTube at Google, and user experience at Uber, where he was a very early user of Figma. In 2019, he became a VP of product at Figma; this past June, he became CPO.

“Design has been really near and dear to my heart, which is why when this opportunity came along to join Figma and rethink design, it was such an obvious opportunity,” Yamashita said.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at


Microsoft lays out its climate advocacy goals

The tech giant has staked out exactly what kind of policies it will support to decarbonize the world and clean up the grid.

Microsoft published two briefs explaining what new climate policies it will advocate for.

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

The tech industry has no shortage of climate goals, but they’ll be very hard to achieve without the help of sound public policy.

Microsoft published two new briefs on Sept. 22 explaining what policies it will advocate for in the realm of reducing carbon and cleaning up the grid. With policymakers in the U.S. and around the world beginning to weigh more stringent climate policies (or in the U.S.’s case, any serious climate policies at all), the briefs will offer a measuring stick for whether Microsoft is living up to its ideals.

Keep Reading Show less
Brian Kahn

Brian ( @blkahn) is Protocol's climate editor. Previously, he was the managing editor and founding senior writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate site, where he covered everything from the weather to Big Oil's influence on politics. He also reported for Climate Central and the Wall Street Journal. In the even more distant past, he led sleigh rides to visit a herd of 7,000 elk and boat tours on the deepest lake in the U.S.

Latest Stories